Conditional love? Co-occurrence patterns of drought-sensitive species in European grasslands are consistent with the stress-gradient hypothesis

Melinda M.J. de Jonge*, Ana Benítez-López, Stephan Hennekens, Luca Santini, Mark A.J. Huijbregts, Aafke M. Schipper

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

5 Citations (Scopus)


Aim: The stress-gradient hypothesis (SGH) postulates that species interactions shift from negative to positive with increasing abiotic stress. Interactions between species are increasingly being recognized as important drivers of species distributions, but it is still unclear whether stress-induced changes in interactions affect continental-to-global scale species distributions. Here, we tested whether associations of vascular plant species in dry grasslands in Europe follow the SGH along a climatic water deficit (CWD) gradient across the continent. Location: Dry grasslands in Europe. Time period: Present. Major taxa studied: Vascular plants. Methods: We built a context-dependent joint species distribution model (JSDM) to estimate the residual associations (i.e., associations that are not explained by the abiotic environment) of 161 plant species as a function of the CWD based on community data from 8,660 vegetation plots. We evaluated changes in residual associations between species for pairs and on the community level, and we compared responses for groups of species with different drought tolerances. Results: We found contrasting shifts in associations for drought-sensitive and drought-tolerant species. For drought-sensitive species, 21% of the pairwise associations became more positive with increasing CWD, whereas 17% became more negative. In contrast, only 17% of the pairwise associations involving drought-tolerant species became more positive, whereas 27% became more negative in areas with a high CWD. Additionally, the incidence of positive associations increased with drought for drought-sensitive species and decreased for drought-tolerant species. Main conclusions: We found that associations of drought-sensitive plant species became more positive with drought, in line with the SGH. In contrast, associations of drought-tolerant species became more negative. Additionally, changes in associations of single species pairs were highly variable. Our results indicate that stress-modulated species associations might influence the distribution of species over large geographical extents, thus leading to unexpected responses under climate change through shifts in species associations.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1609-1620
Number of pages12
JournalGlobal Ecology and Biogeography
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2021


  • community ecology
  • drought stress
  • dry grasslands
  • joint species distribution model
  • species associations
  • stress-gradient hypothesis


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